Top Albums of 2014, by Avinash Mittur
Like seemingly every other year, I find myself wishing I had listened to more new music. The old classics are easy and comfortable to enjoy, though perhaps subject to diminishing returns. A new album is a risky investment for me. I’m about to throw down 10-15 bucks and hours of my life into getting to know an album, in hopes that it clicks. I hate downloading promos and getting any kind of music for free. I like having stuff that I can hold in my hand, and I like spending my hard-earned money on music. Losing something, even if it’s only money, in exchange for a few tunes makes me inherently more attached to them. Why devote my attention to a record if I didn’t have to give anything up for it?
I didn’t listen to as much new music as I’d like, but I can say that I got to know these albums pretty damn well. I picked up most of them at the Amoeba Records in Hollywood, others came in my mailbox and a couple I had to settle for downloading on Bandcamp. I listened to them day in and day out as I drove to work, school or even across California on one of my many trips home to the Bay Area. Music from that part of the country graces much of this list, as I continue to discover more and more bands hailing from Oakland or San Francisco that blow me away.
As another year rolls by, I find myself more and more certain of the music I can enjoy. I like songs that keep it simple. I like melodies that I can latch onto. I hate tracks that meander for days, reveling in their grim atmosphere or whatever the hell. I love riffs that rock out. I love spoken word passages that are so bad that they’re awesome. Sure, I burned a good bit of cash on some LPs that I’ll never listen to again (those Indian and Thou albums are gonna gather a lot of dust on my shelf), but I’m hopefully now better aware of how to spend my time and money.
15. Goatwhore – Constricting Rage of the Merciless
(Metal Blade) [Listen here.]
14. Nausea – Condemned to the System (Willowtip) [Listen here.]
13. Midnight Chaser – Lion’s Choice (Self-released) [Listen here.]
12. Dimesland – Psychogenic Atrophy (Self-released) [Listen here.]
11. Triptykon – Melana Chasmata (Prowling Death/Century Media) [Listen here.]
10. Fortress – Unto the Nothing (Unholy Anarchy Records)
One thing I learned this year was to trust and really explore my friends’ tastes. I’m normally not a fan of funeral doom but when a pal gave Fortress’ debut a glowing recommendation, I decided to give it a fair chance. Rather than the foggy, slower-than-time-itself slogs that I expected, I instead found rather humble riffs soaked in a layer of swampy grime. Gravelly and oddly intelligible growls stood at the front of the mix, rather than hidden away like other albums of Unto the Nothing’s ilk. There’s a strange nearly-Southern swing that graces these tunes, despite the low BPM at hand. This album sways in a kind of somnambulistic manner, and it’s weirdly engrossing. 2014 was the year I got sick of most doom and black metal. Maybe Unto the Nothing, released November, will be the album to lead me out of that funk.
9. Exodus – Blood In, Blood Out (Nuclear Blast)
For pretty much most of high school, I wanted Zetro to return to Exodus so badly. This even led to me bothering Gary Holt about it when I ran into him at a Scorpions concert. When it finally happened, years after my obsession with thrash had waned, it felt bittersweet. Was this calculated? Was this reunion that I desired really genuine? When I finally gave Blood In, Blood Out a fair listen, all those feelings went away. It sounded right. It sounded lethal. “Collateral Damage” was the meanest thing I had heard out of Exodus in who knows when. Now that the honeymoon period is over, I can say with confidence that the first four tracks make up Exodus’ best run in 25 years. Yes, the album is overlong and a couple tracks are downright bad, but Exodus are good friendly violent fun once again. That’s all that matters.
8. Cardinal Wyrm – Black Hole Gods (Self-Released)
Shame on the labels for not fighting amongst each other to sign this band. Black Hole Gods was probably the most original doom metal album I heard all year, and the poor trio had to release the album on their own last August before being picked up by Svart Records for an eventual physical release. There’s bluesy riffing afoot, cosmic church organ and hypnotic, towering chants that have to be heard to be believed on this excellent record. It’s epic doom, but it has the punk rock sensibility that the best Bay Area bands never leave behind. Call it swagger, swing or even just the instinct to rock out, but Cardinal Wyrm have got it. On Black Hole Gods they sound mighty and colossal and more than anything, confident in their vision. I can’t wait for the inevitable follow-up.
7. Giant Squid – Minoans (Translation Loss)
When I first started delving into physics, we learned about potential and kinetic energy. The Ichthyologist featured the latter in spades, moving air with its raw heaviness. Now imagine that power and the space it occupies, and stuff it into a tiny suitcase. The force that it’s capable of unleashing . . . that’s potential energy. That is Minoans, a loaded gun that waits to fire its rounds. When it does, the results are Giant Squid’s most devastating blows yet. The Squid have mastered the art of creating tension and releasing it on their excellent third LP, and have crafted an album that’s pretty heavy when picked apart, and gargantuan when consumed as a whole. Minoans reeled me in with its saccharine melodies. It tore me apart with its carefully selecting bits of wanton destruction, unleashed at just the right moments.
6. Boris – Noise (Sargent House)
Like many others on this side of the Pacific, Pink was the album that ensnared me in the weird and confounding world of Boris. Normally I’m not a fan of feedback-drenched drone doom, but that album’s sheer power bowled me over. Boris’ newest one hooked me in a different way; it made me want to dance. At least the first song did anyway. I couldn’t have been prepared for the cornucopia of styles that would assault my ears after. J-pop, doom, thrash and even a black metal shriek or two find a place on Noise. It’s not just a random stew though, there’s gluey cohesion throughout. What captured me on this album were a bunch of great songs, regardless of their genre. Boris don’t have the most consistent catalog around but when they’re inspired, they’re one of the best bands in the world. On Noise, they sound like masters of the aural domain, able to conquer whatever genre realm they please.
5. Slough Feg – Digital Resistance (Metal Blade)
I make it no secret that Slough Feg is one of my all-time favorite bands. Mike Scalzi’s fondness for great riffs and singable melodies, no matter how cheesy, is something that I’ve always identified with. The metal is partly gone on Digital Resistance. In its place is sonic adventure. Slough Feg diving into unknown territory for the first time in ages made them sound young and refreshed to me. The most “metal” song on here ironically ends up being the highlight, and one of my favorite songs of the year. “Laser Enforcer” condenses everything rad about Slough Feg into one four-minute package: catchy vocals, driving riffs, a righteous dual-lead and the futuristic breakdown are the obvious highs. Oh yeah, and there’s a disco beat because why the hell not? That’s the vibe that makes Digital Resistance such a gem of a record: “why the hell not?” Spaghetti western, psycho organ, lasers . . . from here on out, no territory is safe from Scalzi’s merry band of scoundrels.
4. YOB – Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot Recordings)
I can’t be the only one that fell in love with “Marrow.” Those 18 minutes of heavy metal triumph bring me to my knees every time I put it on. This summer I spend countless nights on empty freeways with the track blasting through my stereo as I allowed myself to be engulfed in volume. YOB could have released that song alone and it would somehow find its way onto my list. Luckily, the rest of Clearing the Path to Ascend is damn strong. There’s an urgency here that was missing on 2011’s Atma, and it’s brought out the best in riff-lord Mike Scheidt. This album is the sound of him and his cohorts marching towards the doom metal throne, declaring their sovereignty with bloody roar and mountainous chord. Clearing the Path to Ascend is grand, vast and mighty--a record that takes the slowest and longest strides possible to victory, just because it can.
3. Cormorant – Earth Diver (Self-released)
I liked Cormorant’s last effort Dwellings a bit. Everyone else seemed to have loved it. I only liked it. Hell, maybe I appreciated its lush production more than the songs themselves. I was able to respect and enjoy those admittedly intelligent and thought provoking tunes, but they didn’t quite turn me over. Earth Diver almost seems like it was written for me in mind; it takes the best elements from Dwellings and gives them all a jolt of unabashedly metal energy. There are galloping riffs, funky breaks and more opportunities to headbang than one can count on this one, and those moments drew me in more than any lyric, no matter how topical or interesting, ever could. As for the highlights, I wish I could list them all. The one most worthy of mention comes in the record’s final third—the gleaming, propulsive glory that is “Broken Circle.” That song, and really the album as a whole, find Cormorant hungrier than ever, still sounding like they have something to prove despite the endless accolades that they’ve earned. Earth Diver is the album that I wanted Dwellings to be, the smart black metal record that isn’t afraid to rock the fuck out. There’s fire and youthful passion in this amazing album. It’s a feeling that’s nearly impossible to put into words, a magic that makes these songs sound a little quicker than they really are. It’s a special kind of raw and bubbling intensity, one that’s made me revisit Earth Diver again and again.
2. Morbus Chron – Sweven (Century Media)
I find comfort in bands that I’m already familiar with. I’m always afraid of getting too into a new band. What if their next album sucks? What if they fizzle out next year? What if I just bought into the hype? Sweven tore those fears apart. Morbus Chron could break up next year, and I would still call Sweven one of the most vital death metal releases in years. This is probably also the only death metal album I could listen to first thing in the morning. Sweven doesn’t storm right out of the gate. It builds and lets its sounds stack and layer. You don’t even realize when the album reaches its heaviest moments, there are only its flow and dynamics. Death metal needed Sweven so badly, an album so unassumingly idiosyncratic in its structure and execution. I needed Sweven, a record that proved to me that a young band could still push this sub-genre forward in a meaningful and natural way. No matter what year it is, Sweven will always sound like an album of the future. That to me is something truly remarkable.
1. Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls (Epic)
This album was initially a few places lower on this list. For whatever reason, I felt like a new record by a 40-year-old dinosaur metal band couldn’t possibly top a year-end list. Then I remembered the sheer amount of joy that Redeemer of Souls has given me since its release this summer . Then I put it on one more time and cracked that dumb grin once again. Nearly every facet of Priest’s colorful career is touched upon here, and they’re executed with class, precision and a touch of youthful vigor courtesy of new guitarist Richie Faulkner. One can practically see the band’s knowing wink here, an awareness that Redeemer of Souls nods to Priest’s trailblazing metal history. I’ve gotten to know nearly every Judas Priest album inside and out over the years, learning the stories, the songs, the production and performances like the back of my hand. When I first listened to Redeemer of Souls, there was little for me to learn. Everything I had already picked up was right there, waiting for me to find it. Redeemer of Souls is a toy box for the Priest nerd in me, with nearly all of the things I like and dislike about them contained within. This album made me bang my head. It induced a couple of facepalms. It made me smile, a lot. It made me remember why Judas Priest is my favorite band.